Saturday, 24 October 2020

The Forgotten Team of Chernobyl: The Football Club Put to an End by the World's Worst Nuclear Disaster


9 May 1986 was supposed to be the beginning of a new era for FC Stroitel Pripyat but the club never lived to see it. That day in early summer the club were supposed to play FC Shakhtar Oleksandriya in a Ukrainian league match, what was the fourth tier of Soviet football, and it would be their first ever match in their brand new stadium. But unfortunately, the match never took place and the new stadium lay empty in fact so did the whole town. Nearby events that took place just under two weeks earlier shook the world and brought an end to life in this treelined town of Pripyat. But whereas people still well remember the now more than 30 years empty town that was home to the workers of the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant very few remember its football club.

Considered the worst nuclear disaster in the history of the world, events on 26 April 1986 left large parts of Ukraine and Belarus uninhabitable due to high radiation levels. This was caused by events at the VI Lenin Memorial Nuclear Power Plant, otherwise known as Chernobyl, during which reactor number four was completely destroyed. This affected the now infamous nearby town of Pripyat which was evacuated just days after the incident and has remained all but empty ever since. The excellent Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham gives a blow by blow account of the event, the aftermath, and the lives of those involved. I could rave on all day about his brilliant book but of course one of thing he does not tell us is the story of FC Stroitel Pripyat.

Formed in the mid 1970s, according to Belarusian football blog A Ya Vse Chashche Zamechayu initially most of Stroitel's line up came from the nearby village of Chistogalovk although others claim the club originally consisted of construction workers working in the local Chernobyl nuclear plant and this would explain the club's name because Stroitel translates into English as 'builder'. Regardless of the club's beginnings, however, and more on that shortly, it does seem that for much of its existence the club's playing squad consisted of workers from the nuclear plant along with the odd player brought in from Kiev. 

Playing in the fourth tier, in 1981, 1982, 1983, and 1985 Stroitel were champions of the Kiev region qualifying for the Ukrainian championship that completed the season and for which the winners were granted a place in the third tier Soviet Second League that sat below the First league and the Top League. In 1985 the club ended the season just four points behind top position and what would have been a promotion in what was the clubs most successful season of all whilst in contrast in 1982, however, they had finished bottom of the eight team Ukrainian championship and in all other years not mentioned did not qualify for it. Playing in the lower echelons of Soviet football the club naturally was not a team of big name stars but one name of note was Anatoly Shepel a former Soviet International who had two League titles and one cup triumph to his name as a player with Dynamo Kyiv. Shepel never actually played for Stroitel on the pitch but for a short while did take up the role as manager of the club during this period of success in the eighties.

It was Vasili Kizima Trofimovich, a man heavily involved in the building of Chernobyl's nuclear plant and the creation of the town of Pripyat, who was the man behind the formation of the town's football club. “We have people in four shifts and nowhere for them to go and rest," he explained. "Let them go and watch football and drink beer." The rest, as they say, was history as many did take up his offer of watching football with home crowds averaging at 2,000 for much of the club's existence. Considering construction of the town did not begin until 1970 and at its height it had a population of barely 50,000 such support was actually fairly impressive. 

With only the most basic of stadiums, however, it was eventually decided that a new one would be needed for the club and so one was constructed. The new Avanhard Stadion was built complete with an athletics track and a 5,000 seat grandstand. It was a stadium the town could be proud of or at least they would have been if the whole area had not have been evacuated shortly before it was due to open.

The week before the grand opening of Pripyat's new stadium, Stroitel were to play in a Kiev regional cup semi-final against a team called Mashinostroitel Borodyanka. However, as the story goes, in their final training session before the match the Borodyanka players were interrupted by an army helicopter which landed on the pitch. Out of helicopter came two military officials who told them that the following day's match was postponed. In the early hours of that day, the now infamous incident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant had happened. 

We all know what happened next for the town of Pripyat, contaminated with radiation leaking from the nuclear plant's destroyed reactor, it would be evacuated with its residents never to return and its shiny new football stadium would lay empty never to be used. But as for the football, well Borodyanka actually went on to win the cup that year and FC Stroitel Pripyat would eventually return as FC Stroitel Slavutych with Slavutych being the name of a new town created for many of the displaced residents of Pripyat to reside. This new side, however, would be dissolved after only a few seasons. Their hearts were not in it. 

The end of FC Stroitel started on that day in April 1986 and their story is one rarely told. In the midst of such a horrifying disaster, one that shook the whole world, the story of the local football club, just one of many subplots to a far bigger tale, was never deemed overly important. But for many of those who lived in Pripyat, FC Stroitel had probably been a significant part of a former life that they would soon come to mourn.

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Football Book Review: The Farther Corner by Harry Pearson

A brilliant book from start to finish.

In The Farther Corner Harry Pearson returns to North East football which is the scene of a previous book of some 25 years ago called The Far Corner. His first book saw him visit many North East grounds from top flight right through to non-league although this latest book is set mostly amongst the delights of the Northern League. However, regardless of the matches he takes in, Pearson still manages to fill the pages with many witty observations akin to what we saw in the first book whilst even more so than in that first offering they are interwoven with many tales from North East football's past across the professional and amateur game.

Pearson's interest in the history of North East football brings up some fascinating tales from the game and also paints a vivid picture of the hard life amongst the coalfields of County Durham and Northumberland, as well as the steelworks of Teesside, that were an existence for many in the region across large parts of the twentieth century. With memories from friends, family, and others with a history in the local football scene to draw upon the book is rich in detail of the inner workings of North East football's past and its importance within its local communities. The book particularly immerses itself in some of the great non-league teams of the past, particularly the great (perhaps not so) amateur sides such as Bishop Auckland who won a record ten FA Amateur Cup's for example whilst also covering the ups and downs of the regions three main professional clubs.

Whilst the book includes many tales from the past it also covers the more recent era of not just football but Pearson's life in general with many anecdotes bordering on the peculiar. All of this is set around a season of non-league football and the specific games he attends where he has a sharp-witted awareness of his surroundings and the people present. This comes with the ability to poke fun at some of the inane habits and characteristics of some of the supporters he comes across as well as football fans in general.

This is a brilliant book from start to finish that involves lots of chuckling to yourself at Pearson's humorous observations as well as getting engrossed in his fascinating stories from North East football's past. On a scale of 1 to an absolute belter, I'd say it is an absolute belter.

Saturday, 10 October 2020

The Day When Borussia Mönchengladbach Almost Pulled Off the Impossible: The Story of the Incredible End to the 1977-78 Bundesliga Title Race

Borussia Mönchengladbach were defending champions having won the Bundesliga title each of the previous three seasons. But despite going into the final day of the 1977-78 season in second behind 1. FC Köln on goal difference there was seemingly no chance of Gladbach making it four in a row. Gladbach's goal difference of +30 put them 10 goals behind Köln on +40 and with Köln playing bottom of the league and already relegated FC St Pauli the title was, therefore, this time surely out of reach or so everyone thought. But a routine afternoon of Köln winning the title turned out to be not so routine after all thanks to one of the craziest games in Bundesliga history.

In 1978 Borussia Mönchengladbach were not just a top side in Germany but one of the best in Europe and had reached the previous season's European Cup final in Rome although they lost to an all conquering Liverpool side. Gladbach were managed by Udo Lattek who would go on to eventually become considered an all-time great by winning 15 major trophies as manager of Gladbach, FC Bayern München, and FC Barcelona. He already had three Bundesliga titles to his name and had won the European Cup with FC Bayern in 1974. Gladbach also had big names on the pitch and their squad included West German internationals such as Bertie Vogts, Rainer Bonhof, and Jupp Heynckes as well as then European Footballer of the Year Allan Simonsen, a Danish international.

Whilst Gladbach went into the final day of the 1977-78 season hoping to pip 1. FC Köln to the title Köln were hoping to clinch their first Bundesliga title since 1964. Their squad also included some star names in Toni Schumacher, Herbert Zimmermann, Heinz Flohe, and Dieter Müller, all fellow West German internationals. Köln's manager Hennes Weisweiler had himself been in charge of Gladbach just three years earlier and like Lattek would also end up classed as an all-time great. Retiring with 11 major trophies to his name he also just like Lattek had three Bundesliga titles to his name by this point as well as having won the UEFA Cup in 1975.

In the penultimate weekend of the season, Köln laboured to a 2-1 win at fourth placed VfB Stuttgart whilst Gladbach defeated Hamburger SV 6-2. Although they both entered the final weekend challenging for the title, neither sides campaign's had been out of this world. Gladbach had lost four times in the opening half of the season, Köln five. But with eight defeats in total compared to Gladbach's six Köln just edged in front of their rivals by virtue of having drawn fewer games. It was a competitive era, however, and winning it at a canter like Bayern often do these days very much uncommon. Besides, the league table still showed they were the two best sides in the country and the pair had numerous big name stars that many other clubs just did not have.

On on April 29, 1978, that final day, Gladbach were at home to Borussia Dortmund (BVB) though with their home stadium being renovated the match was played at Fortuna Düsseldorf's Rheinstadion. Köln meanwhile were away from home in Hamburg where opponents FC St Pauli were based. Both matches kicked off at 15:30 and it did not take long for goals to go in, at least not in Düsseldorf... 

By 15:52 Gladbach were 4-0 up after a stunning opening period and were really going for it but with Köln taking the lead after 28 minutes in their match they would need plenty more goals. Gladbach had gone 1-0 up within a minute thanks to Jupp Heynckes who had been part of West Germany's 1974 World Cup winning squad. He scored with a looping header. Twelve minutes later Heynckes grabbed his second with a low drive whilst a minute later Carsten Nielsen headed home to make it 3-0, one of 23 goals the Dane would score in a Gladbach shirt. Then on 22 minutes 22-year-old winger Karl Del’Haye, signed from Alemannia Aachen three years earlier, made it four by running with the ball from just inside his own half before confusing several defenders then firing the ball into the net from almost 15yds out. Some brilliant football but Gladbach weren't done there - they would be 6-0 up by half-time. Heynckes completed his hat-trick nipping in to slot the ball home on the line before later a through ball saw Herbert Wimmer hit the ball over a sliding out keeper and into the BVB net.

With Köln 1-0 up Gladbach would need to score plenty more goals in the second-half and in what was turning out to be an incredible game did exactly that. For their next goal, Heyneckes looked like he barely touched the ball but just about got a head onto it and the 'keeper who'd rushed out had no chance. 59 minutes gone Gladbach were 7-0 up and It did not take long for 7-0 to become 8 and then 9-0. Nielson turned and fired home before Del’Haye grabbed his second by knocking the ball home after his initial shot was saved. As noted by supporters in the stands who were following events in Hamburg via portable radios, by this point Köln had grabbed a second in their match, however, and were still firm favourites for the title but, nonetheless, Gladbach were really giving it a go.

Heyneckes then grabbed his fifth of the match as the keeper who blocked his first effort didn't quite manage to keep the ball in front of the line from the rebound. Köln scored goals either side that Gladbach tenth, one before and two after, they were 5-0 up and the title was all but theirs but still Gladbach were not done yet. Ewald Lienen, in his first of two spells at the club, made it eleven by controlling then firing the ball home on the half volley before in injury time a through ball saw Christian Kulik, seven years into a ten-year spell at the club, run from just outside the box before firing home from almost 15yds out to finish off the rout and give a final score of Borussia Mönchengladbach 12-0 Borussia Dortmund. 12-0, but trying to overturn a ten goal deficit in the goal difference column they had, however, came up three goals short thanks to Köln's 5-0 win. "We'd rather score a dozen goals than Cologne lose at St. Pauli," said the Gladbach striker on the morning of the match. They did exactly that but on unfortunately in this instance, it was still not enough.

Despite losing out in the title race, Gladbach's supporters headed home very impressed with their team's performance but others less so. Accusations of match-fixing would unsurprisingly be voiced after such a performance and even as it unfolded live many were suspicious. As the goal updates filtered through to Hamburg some St Pauli fans feeling something wasn't quite right even started cheering on their opponents Köln. Of course, everyone involved denied this especially the BVB players themselves. They did not do it on purpose they had everyone believe and right back Amand Theis admitted regarding the poor performance that: "The shame has accompanied us for years." Nothing has ever been proven and it's generally accepted these days that the match was played fairly. 

If the match was embarrassing for BVB then none more so than their goalkeeper Peter Endrulat. Playing in place of injured first choice keeper Horst Bertram the game was most definitely the beginning of the end for the 23-year-old at the club as the as the following day he was told his contract would not be renewed. A short lived career saw him go on to make 60 appearances for 2. Bundesliga Nord club Tennis Borussia Berlin.

Endrulat was not the only departure at BVB post the 12-0 debacle as manager Otto Rehhagel was also fired the day after the match. He would go on to manage various other clubs across Germany before coaching the Greek national team to shock European Championship glory when as rank outsiders they unexpectedly won the Euro 2004 tournament held in Portugal.

Others not sacked by BVB did not get off scot free, however, as their poor performance was rewarded with a DM2000 fine for each player. 

For Gladbach's five goal star of the show it was also the end as Heynckes had announced he was retiring after a distinguished career that saw two spells at the club and 39 caps for West Germany. He would go on to have a managerial career almost as successful as his mentor Lattek starting at none other than Gladbach a year later when Lattek quit to join unbeliebably BVB having just won the UEFA Cup with Gladbach. Gladbach won five league titles over the course of the seventies, three with Lattek in charge, and twice finished runners up but have yet to win a Bundesliga title since or indeed even finished second again. As for the team that pipped them to the title on that final day, Köln have also yet to the title again though dd twice finish runners up at the end of eighties. Manager Hennes Weisweiler left at the end of 1979-80 season and moved to America to briefly manage the New York Cosmos.

Considering, as mentioned, neither side would win another title, in some ways that April afternoon in 1978 was the last hurrah for both Borussia Mönchengladbach and 1. FC Köln. And as for that 12-0 win well it was and still is the biggest ever winning margin in Bundesliga history. The match was also listed 43rd in 11 Freunde magazine's greatest matches of all-time. A truly crazy scoreline that saw one of the most surreal final day title races in football history - Even if the final outcome was the one everyone had predicted beforehand!